Brazil may cut back on environmental protection

05 maio 2011    
Cutting down on protection for the forests is a longstanding aspiration of backward sectors of agribusiness and the so-called 'ruralista' faction in the Brazilian parliament. In the last few years they have alternated with one another in keeping up a fierce lobby to achieve that end. The movement gained strength at the beginning of this year with the renewed focus on proposed alterations to the Forest Law, first enacted in 1930 to protect natural vegetation, slopes, waters and populations.

A proposed amendment composed by the 'ruralistas', and put forward by Federal Representative Aldo Rebelo of the Brazilian communist party, is on the verge of being voted  and will make profound alterations to one of Brazils most important pieces of environmental legislation. Representative Rebelo alleges that the changes foreseen will address the outstanding needs of Brazilian agriculture, especially in the case of small-scale farmers and livestock producers. Voting, which was expected to take place this Wednesday (04/05), has been put off.

If the amendment is approved as it stands at present, without heeding the suggestions made by the Federal Government, the scientific community, the evaluations of environmental entities, or the opinions of the family-based agriculture sector, it will be a huge step backwards and seriously jeopardise any possibility of achieving international goals for the conservation of biodiversity and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

That is very bad news for a country that is mega-diverse and which will be hosting the Rio +20 event next year to mark the two decades that have passed since the Earth Summit (Rio 92), without mentioning its intention to host mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

"Representative Aldo Rebelo is creating a series of snares and agendas hidden in the modifications he made to the text. His behaviour is imperilling a historical opportunity to construct legislation that simultaneously promotes conservation and benefits rural production. Organised civil society and scientists have not had a hearing in this process. Putting the text to the vote as it stands would be a very serious mistake," stressed Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza, Conservation Director at WWF-Brazil. 

Among the tricky catches Aldo Rebelo has included in the text is empowering more than 5,500  municipal authorities to authorise forest clearing, even in areas currently under environmental protection, and opens up the possibility of doing so for "any area that is to be dedicated to the production of foodstuffs". It also transfers the onus for the demarcation and registration of the Legal reserve areas - areas of natural vegetation that must remain undisturbed on every rural landholding - to government bodies. 

The proposal now before the Chamber of Representatives brings with it a series of other threats to Brazil's great natural wealth, and not only to the Amazon region. It consolidates as a fait acomplis all the illegal deforestation that was carried out up until 2008; reduces the mandatory width of the protective strip of gallery forest vegetation that must be preserved along the courses of streams and rivers; liberates the tops of hills, mountains and plateaus for cattle raising activities; permits the felling of tree species under threat of extinction like the Araucária Pines and reduces the socio-environmental functions of  rural landholdings by diminishing the percentages of natural vegetation that must be maintained on them.

Fully engaged in the national mobilisation to achieve more positive and serious-minded alterations to the Forest Law WWF-Brazil supported the production of a booklet entitled Forest Law: find out what is at stake in the reform of our environmental legislation. Using technical, scientific and historical arguments, the booklet explains the consequences of the changes to the legislation being proposed by the agribusiness and 'ruralista' factions. In May 2010, jointly with other civil society entities, WWF-Brazil promoted a Seminar on Forest Law for journalists.

At the same time, a more technical document, 'An analysis of the impacts of applying the present Forest Law in municipalities with a high level of agricultural production ' showed that maintaining forest vegetation in areas designated as permanent preservation areas  in the southern Brazilian municipalities of Bento Gonçalves (Rio Grande do Sul) and  Friburgo (Santa Catarina) and in  Três Pontas (Minas Gerais) and Vila Valério (Espirito Santo) in the Southeast- would only have an impact on 1.5% of their agricultural production, thus entirely refuting in practice,  the ruralistas' arguments that the law was deadlocking agribusiness.

More time - Not having been heard in the discussions so far, scientists are calling for much broader and more serious debates on alterations to the Forest Law. In the period from July 2010 to April 2011, scientists attached to the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science and to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences made an assessment of the extension of Brazilian lands dedicated to agriculture and evaluated the proposed alterations to the Forest Law put forward by the 'ruralistas'.

Their conclusion was that the legislation as it stands no longer addresses the countries territorial situation and it needs to incorporate the precepts of modern science. Aldo Rebelo's amendment, however, only makes the situation worse by reducing the protection afforded to natural vegetation on the edges of river, streams and other bodies of water, and on the tops of hills and steep slopes. The conservation of such areas is essential to ensure the protection of biodiversity and the safety of human populations.

"If the amendment is voted as it stands now, it will be the first Forest Law elaborated in Brazil since 1934, without any scientific input whatever. If we had more time to debate the issue we would have an opportunity of constructing environmental legislation suitable for the 21st century, modern and scientifically illuminated," stated Antônio Nobre, a researcher at the National Institute of Space Studies (Inpe).

Climate in check  - Brazil has committed itself under United Nations agreements, to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by around 1 billion tons  by 2020. If the alterations proposed by agribusiness and the ruralistas headed by Aldo Rebelo come into force, than that goal will go down the drain and so will the National Policy on Climate Change. A study presented at the end of 2010 by the NGO Climate Observatory calculates that more than 25 billion tons of greenhouse gases may be launched into the atmosphere as a result of deforestation stemming from these ill-considered alterations to the law.

Proof of all that is that, in the last few weeks, large scale deforestation has been taking place in the state of Mato Grosso again. In April, Federal inspectors detected clear ed areas of more than one thousand hectares,  a practice that had become unusual in  the last three years. Data of the Man and the Amazon Environment Institute (Imazon) were already showing a tendency to a 25% increase in deforestation and a 225% increase in forest degradation in the Amazon region in the period from August 2010 top March 2011, as compared to the figures for the same period in the previous year.